The Muse of Ocean Parkway
We met one Thursday night in an Ocean Parkway living room at the monthly gathering of a literary circle devoted to the 19th-century Russians. The place was like a museum, a European salon shortly before World War II where embittered souls sacrificed their lives to art. Heavy drapes kept out the noise of traffic below and soft lamps near the thick sofa kept the rest of the room dark and gloomy. I expected Kafka and Brod to come out of the kitchen clutching a burning manuscript. The old mahogany furniture dominated the room and kept the conversation low, inaudible, private. When the cognac and Polish vodka were served with herring fillets and hard cheeses, it broke some of the tension, but the seven or eight people in the room still looked as if a short time before they had modeled for the severe aristocratic portraits hanging on the walls.
It wasn’t love for Russian literature which brought me to this old-world apartment in Brooklyn, just pure vanity. Out of the blue I received a call from a stranger who admired some of my stories. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and when he threw two plots at me, one at least ten years old, I was quite intrigued. I published in the most obscure places and never believed there were any readers out there, especially that rare kind who could remember one of my plots: a man rents out his apartment to others for afternoon trysts, and when he returns at night he imagines the different women who’ve slept on his sheets.
I had completely forgotten the piece, probably for good reason, but Ivan Horowitz had always loved it, praising its Russian landscape, which was why he called. He wanted me to come to a meeting of a literary circle that he headed. I begged off, much too busy, a habit of mine to stay away from literary discourses, breaks the rhythm . . . as a matter of fact I was just sitting at the typewriter.
A man in my position, Horowitz wanted me to understand, shouldn’t be bothered with trifles, but this was different. An honored guest, I was being invited to judge a novice’s understanding of the genre. Membership in the circle was select, and though anyone could come to a meeting, only those who showed a sensitivity to the theme of the night in question were asked to read a short piece at a later date that revealed a deeper understanding of the period. Entertainments and imitations were frowned upon.
In the end, imagining a roomful of Slavic professors and Russian emigré writers with connections in London, I consented. Though I had written enough stories to fill two thick volumes, nothing much had come of my efforts to bring out a book. Maybe I’d meet an editor in the room who loved literary circles and prided himself on a string of new talent discovered in the strangest places. “Would you believe I found Riga in Brooklyn talking about Gogol? Somebody’s apartment.”
As soon as I walked in the door, I had a change of heart. Ivan Horowitz introduced himself as the voice on the telephone, and pulling me aside asked if I wanted to see a few very rare documents. Thirty years ago he had carried on a short-lived correspondence with Dostoevsky’s great-grandson. He showed me five postcards postmarked Warren, Michigan where he claimed the young man had worked on a General Motors assembly line. He had it from a very good source that this man’s insistence on being no relation to the other Russian, though he spelled his name the same way, was a peculiar habit immigrants had in shunning publicity.
I went back into the living room to eavesdrop on conversations and get drunk. Mrs. Horowitz. pushed a glass of something sweet into my hand and introduced me to the men sitting next to me. One of them told me he taught chessplayers the rudiments of Russian so that they could read international chess magazines.
“But personally I’m looking for sex.”
“Is that so?” I said.
“I have nothing to be ashamed of. I’m still healthy. My hair may be gray but the hair on my chest is still black and curly. I hear the women in Europe like older men.”
“Though I’ve been there a couple of times, I really couldn’t say for sure one way or the other.”
There was a mad gleam in his eye when he asked in a whisper, “Tell me, what’s the best country in Europe for sex?”
“France,” I answered without thinking.
“You mean it’s better than Denmark?”
“It’s the best.”
“Isn’t Germany better, not that I’d even bother?”
“No, France is.”
“After all these years?”
“And Spain or Portugal?”
“Not as good as France.”
“The women there like it, they’re hot blooded?”
“Sure they like it, like other women.”
“This country is terrible. You wine them and dine them and then they won’t have sex with you. So then I have to go and relieve myself. So France is the best. I should go there?”
“It’s the best, I swear it.”
“And the food there? There’s kosher food for a Jewish person?”
“Lots of food.”
“Tell me what’s damper, New York or Paris?”
“I can’t breathe. My sinuses.”
I escaped to another corner of the room and refilled my glass with imported Polish vodka, gulping it down in two shots. The earlier silence had given way to a strong murmur, not exactly passionate dialogues but no longer were the faces carved from stone, the lips white and the eyes drained. An older woman smiled at me and stroked her hair very gently. When I smiled back she came over and asked if I had been relishing Mr. Block’s insights into the Russian soul, especially its women.
“The man you were just talking to.”
“Yes, very much.”
“He’s a great scholar, and very modest about his achievements. Though his dissertation is unpublished, several graduate students have already begun to quote him. I daresay his name will live on after all of us are dead. Begging your pardon of course. Mr. Horowitz has spoken of your fine talent.”
“I just try to tell a story the best way I know how to.”
“No need for modesty. As a matter of fact my own life would make a great tragedy if I could find the right man to tell my story in a novel. There is no problem when it comes to talking, but when I pick up a piece of paper the words just dry up. Do you have a moment?”
When I hesitated she promised me fifty per cent of the earnings. “Just give me a few minutes before you say no.”
“Well, when I was younger I loved the stage. And I fell in love with an actor I’ve never forgotten about till this day. I still keep the New York Times review of his portrayal of Othello.
Arthur Gordon was perfect, an eloquent sense of craft in his movements and the precise combination of longing and jealousy in his deep basso voice. I waited for him after his last performance and in my bedroom he spoke about great parts for great actors. He begged me to listen to a monologue from his most successful play. I told him I loved his approach to despair on the stage and he complimented me on my abandoned nature in bed. There’s nothing to be shy about. Our love was rare, perfect. He made love ferociously, like a boy of twenty, slept till noon, ate a huge breakfast and promised to call the next time he was in New York. A week later, the plane he was in lost an engine a minute after take-off and he was killed in the crash. For months I was hysterical. I couldn’t eat, sleep, look at another man. I never married because of my love for Arthur. Am I a fool, a stupid woman? These thoughts and regrets must appear in the story. I don’t yet know how to end the story except with my death. Can you help me write it?”
“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “Write a few chapters and I’ll read it. Maybe then I’ll have a better idea.”
“Thank you very much,” she said. “My name is Sarah Newman and I’m in the phone book. Call me in two weeks, better make it a month. I will have a fresh typed chapter for you.”
Ivan Horowitz was discussing pain when the new woman opened the living room door very slowly. On awkward, shy steps, she selected a deep arm chair in the corner of the room, as unobtrusively as possible, but everyone stared at her. Ten years ago she must have been a raving beauty.
“Am I late? I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s quite all right. Miss Lublin, may I call you Sonya?” Ivan asked. “I was just remarking what play is without pain. Nonsense. It can’t exist. But pain alone is no play. The great Russians would agree. Though not famous as playwrights, except two or three they wracked us with painful stories. Have you any opinions of this matter?”
Flustered, she reached for a glass of cognac that Mrs. Horowitz brought over, and after downing the drink in a quick gulp, looked up still confused. “Were you talking to me? Oh, I see. Pain? I don’t know. It’s such an abused word. Can I have another drink? Thank you. I’m really sorry about being late, but I got lost on the subway. Do you want me to read now or should I wait a while? I’m very nervous.”
Earlier I had been introduced to a master chess player named Arfel and he pulled me aside. “That woman, I hate her. She doesn’t screw.”
About forty, he was easily the youngest man there, his long hair still black and strong. Looking at him, I couldn’t hide my amazement.
“You don’t believe me?” he said.
“Then I bet you don’t believe me that I once played Nabokov blindfolded and beat him in twelve moves.”
“What does one thing have to do with the other?”
“I want you to believe me.”
I turned my eyes back to Sonya Lublin. She moved close to a lamp where the light was strongest, taking out her notes. “I decided I would give neither a fiction nor a non-fiction reading. Just the truth. A few short sentences about who I am and what I think about.” She hesitated but no one interrupted her.
“As a youth I read too many Russian novels. Now I’m past thirty and live alone on the West Side in a vast, empty apartment which, as a result of my fear of the landlord’s whims and brutal anger, remains unpainted and unplastered. The hallway reeks of unusual smells, the memories of lost lives buried in the woodwork, and the bedroom, the only room I really use except for the kitchen, is as dark as the hallway closet with the same cramped smell and crowded space.
“In my mind’s warped eye every bedroom turns into Raskolnikov’s single room on the fifth-floor landing and every street seems just off Nevsky Prospect, the most oft-mentioned street in Russian literature. Every drunk babbles with love for Mother Russia or hate for the dirty Jews. And the men I meet and fall in love with, well, if not actually repentant drunkards, I am always attracted to their tragic side eulogizing faint ephemeral losses. Souls of former serfs mourn for three days straight in Broadway saloons. And the cold Hudson wind is a Siberian frost, merciless and cruel. But most vivid are the faces of clerks, without eyes, noses, or lips which abound in the subways riding toward jobs in the Civil Service.”
Sonya sat down before anyone realized she had come to the end. Averting her eyes, she stuffed the page back into her pocketbook. Light applause followed. I turned away, embarrassed, and was glad to see that someone was serving tea and cakes. Like the Russians, we broke off pieces of the hard cubed sugar and held them between our teeth as we sipped the hot liquid.
Horowitz came over and asked for my opinion. I was about to nod acceptance, when I noticed Arfel across the room twisting his tongue obscenely in Sonya’s direction.
“No,” I said thoughtfully. “Her piece is too sentimental.”
“I thought I heard an interesting little piece,” Horowitz said.
“If you include her, I think you’ll be compromising your own standards.”
Horowitz looked bewildered. I added, “You don’t want anyone to accuse your circle of being soft, where only the surface is read and what’s between the lines is overlooked.”
“No one can say that about us.”
“I should want to keep it that way.”
“I see what you mean. Of course you’re right. An attractive lady. But not what we need.” He shook my hand. “Thank you very much, Mr. Riga.”
I excused myself and as I was putting on my coat, Sonya stopped me. “Why did you vote against me?”
Her hand held onto my sleeve. “I know that you were tonight’s judge and I think I deserve a simple explanation.”
“Can we talk some other place? This is rather awkward.”
“What’s wrong with right here?”
“How about coffee?”
It was too late to work that night, but I should have been home revising a manuscript. I didn’t expect her to say yes.
“Is this a pick-up?”
“Yes, if you want it to be.”
“All right then, good night.”
I was halfway out the door when I heard her yell for me to wait. Rather than stand at the door, I indicated I’d wait for her at the elevator. We creaked down in silence. On Church Avenue, just around the corner, we found an open, almost empty, luncheonette, ordering two toffees, black.
Without describing Arfel’s tongue, I told her she was far too good and clever for the circles antics and literary pretensions. I simply thought it best for her not to spend her evenings in the company of well-read madmen.
“What then should I do with my evenings?”
“I don’t know. What about movies?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You know what happens to a woman alone in a theater. Right away there are ten men, all breeds and educations, who think it’s their God-given right to screw you that night, after a perfunctory drink in the nearest bar. The first night it’s always a cab, a tour of a one-room studio, admiring ugly reproductions, two quick vodkas to knock the protest out of me, and then perfectly horrible, masturbatory sex. Besides,” she said after a long drag on her cigarette, “I don’t like movies. It’s all fake. Give me Chekhov any day.”
“You could take a course. Better yet, give one. Or different circles. Horowitz’s friends are off the wall. Why bother with them?”
“You’re a writer, aren’t you? What’s your name?”
She looked surprised when my name meant nothing to her.
“How could you tell I write?”
“I just guessed. Or maybe it’s your moral platitudes about the world of books, as if it were different from everything out there. So what if they might want to sleep with me? At least they don’t work out in a gym twice a week to knock off a few perfectly innocent sweet pounds. I don’t like men who stop to look in the mirror on the way to the bathroom or keep nothing in the refrigerator except a bottle of cheap wine and eight varieties of salad oil without a trace of tomato or a piece of lettuce. By the way, I’m curious what a writer has in his refrigerator.”
“I’m not really sure.”
“Try. Start by looking inside the freezer.”
“Ice cubes. Peas and carrots.”
She winced. “Next shelf.”
“Milk, eggs, sour cream, tuna fish salad, sour pickles, olives, a few slices of cheese, but I can’t remember what kind, probably Swiss, I usually get that.”
“Are you sure?”
“Pretty conventional. But at least you have enough for breakfast. I suppose you have a few canned things. Any bread?”
“Wonderful. I like that, especially toasted. It makes a good tuna sandwich.”
“If you’re hungry we could order something now.”
“That’s all right. I was just wondering.”
“Don’t be shy. Remember this isn’t a movie theater.”
“Crap it’s all the same.”
“I’m not making any passes.”
“So what? And if you were would that be terrible? You think a woman doesn’t like to feel desired sometime?”
“Didn’t you just say. . .?”
“All I said was that they were creeps. But it doesn’t mean I didn’t go with them still wanting something different. A woman hopes.”
“We all do.”
“What do you know?”
“I’m human aren’t I?”
She mimicked me: “I’m human aren’t I? Is that all you can say? What the hell do you write about anyway? Tell me, have you ever published?”
I mentioned several journals, nothing she’d ever heard of.
“I’ve known several writers myself. Quite intimately. But they’re horrors. That pencil never stops. I might be sitting there bored about what to do Saturday night, and the next thing I know it’s in one of his stories. I can’t sneeze without him recording it. If I go to the zoo to kill an afternoon, he’ll find a metaphor. If my apartment needs to be painted and the drapes hung, he’ll disappear, talk about his bad back, his allergy to turpentine, but before my next period, wham, there it is, black on white. A little stroke here and there, and it seems like a different protagonist, but I know who it is all the time. What do you write about?”
“No. Mostly about old crippled Jews in Brownsville. But what I’ve really done is map out this imaginary world which I’ve peopled with bad and nearsighted Yiddish poets, European revolutionaries, repentant and suffering sons and bitter Kafkaesque fathers.”
She wanted to read something I had written. Since I wasn’t carrying any rough drafts with me, I outlined a plot of a story I was currently molding: several survivors in an unnamed city sometime during World War II, suffering a miserable hunger.
“The focus of the piece is the hunger, but the sense of place is alluded to. I’m dealing with the real feelings of archetypal characters in a nightmare world that turns surreal in the course of the narration. The three main characters react differently to the hunger; madly, I would say.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Sonya said.
“Well, the language is very important. Very dry, very brittle.”
“What’s the theme?”
“I don’t have any one theme that can be underlined in red ink. Let’s just say this piece is a parody of the characters’ wretched existence once it’s stripped to the bone.”
“I suppose there are certain similarities, but the tone and the way I work with words is completely different. After all, I’m a New Yorker, and I don’t have his Christian guilt.”
“I don’t like writers who intentionally fracture their view of reality,” Sonya said, refusing the menu the waitress offered us. “I hate these broken lenses.”
I gently suggested that there was no one way to perceive reality, though I thought it best to refrain from analyzing the discoveries of the French Impressionists after the invention of the camera. But she beat me to it when she criticized all the modernists for forgetting the Bible in their mad rush to scrape out a little meager landscape they could call their own.
“They’re so greedy to be novel they’re blind to the ancient surrealism evoked by a despotic God, his humble, very human angels and those screaming Babylonian poets in rags. And what about that dry, grizzly naturalism you get when the Hebrews are enslaved in Egypt, mixing mortar and cement in the hot sun. And when they’re saved by Moses, it’s the natural world gone mad. An epidemic of lice, frogs, water turning to blood, pitch black darkness, fire alive in giant hailstones. The plagues are nothing but the thread of sanity clipped from the conventional world. And where else can you find language like Ezekiel’s vision or the heartrending melodrama of Joseph fooling his brothers, bowing down to the Egyptian Minister of Finance whom they don’t recognize. Up from jail into Pharaoh’s palace, his right-hand man. Name it and you got it in the Bible.”
“I don’t pretend to want to evoke an entire world,” I said.
“Crap! Anything less is ego.”
“But I don’t even write about myself.”
“That’s what they all say. But scratch the surface and you’ll find a bleeding ego and a twisted childhood. I’ll be honest with you. If it’s true you don’t fill your pages with a day-to-day account of musings and reflections, then that makes me glad.”
“I have my reasons.”
We had more coffee, but at that time of night the cake I ordered was no longer fresh. Between halfhearted bites, I stared at Sonya. I wanted to know if she’d ever been married, but instead I asked if she also wrote.
“Heaven forbid. Though once I tried my hand at translating.”
“Yes. It was a disaster. The writer was still alive, in his late 70s, and he approached me at some symposium I can’t remember the topic of, after I’d made some trenchant comment, what a joke! Anyway I worked hard, and didn’t even set a specific fee. Once he got his sheaf of poems back, he kept hounding me why I chose this word instead of another one he thought more appropriate. He began to sweat. I lost patience explaining nuances. I thought his English terrible but didn’t tell him. He prided himself that friends of his, professors at Columbia University, had said he spoke English beautifully. I told him for a man who had friends at Columbia he really didn’t need anyone else. A shame, he was a good writer, but so vain and afraid that my translation might detract from his noble vision. Now he’s dead and the vision, untranslated, is with him in the grave.”
“What language was that?”
“Yiddish. But whatever else can be said about these immigrant writers in America, no one can accuse them of writing literary conundrums to engage the intellect of bored critics. Prison is prison, no trimming. They stick to facts, describing suffering with real tears and pain.”
Knowing next to nothing about Yiddish literature, I muttered feebly, “Didn’t Kafka know Yiddish?”
“Nonsense. And if he did, what’s the point? Something you picked up in a fat journal. It’s just propaganda from those insipid critics, always trying to carry Kafka on whatever bandwagon they’re preaching at the time. All those twisted and damned critics. You and your cohorts have misread him for three decades. The man was a realist. It all really happened. The cockroach, the hunger artist, the trial. Every word is true. No suspension of reality, just the suspension of habituated and conventional reflexes. Kafka’s stories are the ten plagues of Prague. Once you get beyond the surface you can’t name one fantastic thing in his work. Don’t read him for symbolism. It’s as natural, as horrible, as the Nile turning to blood. He wasn’t a guilty Catholic or a spent Buddhist, he wasn’t an impotent clerk or a whining Jew.”
Sonya’s Russian piece was fiction, a baldfaced lie. She lived with her father in a cramped three-room apartment in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood overrun with muggers and thieves, and not alone in a sprawling West Side flat. Her mother was dead, too long ago to talk about it, and her father had turned religious in his old age, rarely leaving his spot in the kitchen except when he went to pray. She hated it when the Times did a feature story on the neighborhood’s problems, focusing on a typical day in the life of the sexton in the old shul. The story was a stamp of death, a formal burial, stuck between a piece on a blind photographer’s recent work and two recipes for squash. A week later the story was just dead weight, the neighborhood forgotten. Sonya wrapped a chicken with it and threw the rest out, without showing it to her father.
“My father has seen so much pain in his life. First in Europe and then in America. I had a brother who ran away from home. One card arrived from Israel, then six months later a letter with a photograph from Australia. He was wearing a sailor’s uniform. We never heard from him again. My mother lived as long as she had a strain of hope that he was alive, but after a few years she just gave up. My father is old now, but he still curses everyone: the refugees for their greed and short memory and the Americans for their innocence and passion for pleasures. He’d like to see the police patrol the streets with German shepherds.”
“That’s rather violent,” I said.
“Violent. What the hell do you know? It’s the words of a desperate, broken man. I was wild myself once. After my mother died I couldn’t take coming home night after night to that ugly apartment, him sitting there with a cold glass of tea, spitting his rage at the world. He went through the Forward just to make fun of the writers’ feeble attempts to say something about the events. How long could I take cooking for him and washing his shirts? I had to leave. And I did. But now there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him, to make his life easier.”
“You can’t just live for others,” 1 responded, unconvincingly.
“That’s easy for you to say. You have your crappy art, a few published stories to nourish you for twelve years. I have my father, nothing else. What else can I do? He has no one else but me. At least let him have one joy in this world.”
I was quiet. I didn’t agree with her, but what could I say to change her mind?
“I love him very much,” she said.
“Is that so?”
“You can’t understand how I feel. It hurts me to look into his eyes and see a broken shell.”
“I believe you.”
“I don’t know why I get into this every time I open my mouth. You’re probably laughing at me. Here you want to get a chick into bed and she’s turning into a melancholy bitch.”
“I’m not laughing,” I said, my eyes sober and thoughtful. “And I don’t think you’re melancholy. Not in the real sense of the word.”
“Well, that’s kind of you. But I see you left the bed part intact.”
I had no intention of an affair, but didn’t tell her that. To change the topic, I suggested dinner. It might do her good. She refused, saying that she ate only strictly kosher, not because she believed in the ritual, but out of respect to her father. “And let me tell you something. The only reason I’m sitting here with you is because you said you don’t write about your life. You see, if I became your lover, and I say that very rationally without erotic intentions, you might write about me. Then what might happen, though I realize it’s unlikely, is that my father reads the story and recognizes me as I made love to you without any clothes on, lying on a deserted beach, or in the bathtub, the skin wet and silky. Who knows what kind of obscene positions you’d embroider your little tale with. I could never face him after that. I’d just die if he knew about me through your lies.”
“I’ll never write about you,” I said.
Though Sonya was near tears, her tongue was sharp. “You’d have to prove it.”
“I could show you some of the stories I’ve published. They’re in a bookcase in my living room.”
“Your living room? You’re just saying that to seduce me at your place.”
“Not at all. There’s nowhere else you can find those magazines. Some don’t even publish anymore. One editor committed suicide and took five thousand copies of back issues with him to the grave.”
“What about libraries?”
“I don’t know. Do you think I wouldn’t like that myself? If you want, I’ll send you a bibliography.”
“Don’t get angry. All I care about is whether you’ve ever written autobiographically or not. I can’t be too careful.”
“Believe me, Sonya, I never write about myself or anyone else I know. If I were having an affair with a woman, she could sleep for a year with me, eat blood and suck life, without chancing a vindication by me in print somewhere. After all, I’ve been writing for fifteen years and not one word of anything I’ve ever published remotely indicates that I have that repugnant trait which drags up every scrap—parents, friends, lovers, childhood—to pinpoint my literary landscape. I’ll tell you the truth, this kind of autobiographical fiction even insulted my critical sensibility in college, which sparred with Kafka, Beckett, and Borges.”
“I’d hate it if my name became nothing but a bit of conversation, of the cheap sort, when you divulge dirty secrets about me to your guests.”
“That would never occur, Sonya. I even have a theory about what can happen and what must never happen in one of my stories. When I describe someone, which is quite rare, since I don’t care about gray hair, a gnarled face, or a yellow beard, what I do is shut my eyes and picture one of the characters I’ve met in my time, mostly strangers sitting in a cafeteria or the park attendant where I sometimes go after a good day’s work. Even if I meet some of these people, they never appear as individuals, just as a kind of fabric.” I told her about a sixty-year-old virgin I knew and another man who believed he was the greatest sufferer in human history, writing letters to CBS, the Daily News, Status magazine, and Dear Abby. “I have no interest in describing people I become involved with. I don’t fuse my life and the world of my fiction. I believe in invention.”
“I’m safe with you?” she asked.
“I’m telling you the truth,” I told her. “I hate turning a story into a confessional forum. It’s against everything I’ve always believed in. Art is not the random facts of life, collected in chronological order, but the vision behind it.”
“So long as that vision doesn’t include me.”
“I’m absolutely bored with writing about bed partners. For God’s sake, even the sheets are more interesting in fiction, the goddamn hairs, the shade that doesn’t work, the cold steam pipes.”
“I swear I wouldn’t write about you. If you want I can bring you notarized statements of other women who’ve slept with me and that I never wrote about.”
“Is it too late to call now?”
“What do you think?”
“I hope you don’t think I’m crazy. But I have to make you understand what would happen if my father knew, if he recognized me in your story. I can’t take a chance he might find your name on a slip of paper I leave behind near the telephone, and the next time he’s in the library looking through a couple of periodicals he spies your name in a magazine.”
“Isn’t that rather remote?”
Her eyes were blazing. “I’m talking about my father’s life. There is nothing remote when it comes to that. I have to account for all possibilities. He must never know that I know a writer. He’s so suspicious he would do anything to find out where he publishes, even if it’s under a pseudonym, and then look for evidence of my sleeping around. I love him too much to hurt him now.”
“Why should he be so suspicious of you?”
“Who said he’s suspicious?”
“I’m using your words.”
“I didn’t mean that. Oh, Christ. You don’t understand a thing.”
I sipped the cold coffee in silence, stealing glances at her tortured eyes. Was she a child of ravaged Poland, eating radishes to keep alive, raped at twelve and abandoned to Europe’s mad history at fourteen? I had seen her panic-stricken face in the brutal photographs of children shipped to the camps; her trembling body alone even among the hushed crowds at Warsaw Ghetto memorials, after years of searching for a trace of her father in the wasted cities and towns—a wristwatch, an old letter, a good shoe on a young Pole’s foot—whose death she refused to accept. I saw her standing in the railway station in Vienna, five o’clock in the afternoon; then in Paris, reaching for a Yiddish newspaper, vainly hunting for one name among the living in the lost persons’ column.
“Sonya,” I finally said, “I do understand. Only too well. Trust me and you’ll see. All my stories are kept in one spot. You’re free to walk into my study and reach for whatever you want. There’s no way I can hide any piece from your eyes.”
“Will you give me time to read a wide selection?”
“As long as you want.”
“Even till dawn?”
“Till the following afternoon if you need it.”
“You won’t bother me while I read? Tell me to take off my sweater, or that I’ll be more comfortable on the couch, or that I should get out of my uncomfortable dress and try on your bathrobe?”
“I’ll be in the other room, making coffee.”
“Reading, sleeping. Don’t worry. I have things to do.”
“And if I decide it’s autobiographical and want to go home right then?”
“You’re the judge.”
“Will you call a cab?”
“If you want to.”
“Start now, it’s raining outside.”
Indeed it was. I wondered how she’d known, since her back faced the window. Perhaps my glasses reflected the downpour, but I didn’t ask. Outside there were no cabs in sight. I suggested we walk to the subway, and if we spotted a cruising cab we’d hail it. By the time we reached the station, we were drenched. Drying off, she asked for a dime—she had to call her father and tell him she was staying with a friend.
“At your age?”
“I’m still young.”
I got change of a quarter at the token booth, and waited nearly five minutes before she finished talking. Sonya seemed distraught, lighting a cigarette on the platform though it was forbidden. I told her at this hour every subway was patrolled by a policeman.
“Leave me alone.”
“What’s wrong?” I said, touching her shoulder for the first time.
“My father called me a whore.”
“All I said was that I was staying with a friend, and he wanted to know why my bed wasn’t good enough for me.”
“Don’t take it to heart.”
“Look, if you called me a whore, a filthy tramp, I would wipe the floor with the paper it was written on. But that’s my lather. He called me that word!”
“Is it true?”
“What are you playing games with me for? All right. Since you gave me ten cents, you now owe me nineteen ninety. I’d like it in cold cash.”
I ignored the remark. We spoke very little during the ride. Then as the doors were closing at Forty-second Street, she said maybe she ought to go home, but it wasn’t said seriously. At Seventy-second Street, the next stop, she actually got up to leave. I held onto her arm and told her we were almost there; besides it wasn’t safe now to travel alone.
By the time I opened the locks on my door. 1 was a nervous wreck. The kitchen hadn’t been cleaned for days. Probably there was no toilet paper in the bathroom; the floors were filthy the sheets soiled.
I concentrated. First I took her coat, then led her into the living room. I offered her a drink. bourbon. Immediately she wanted to know why.
“It’ll warm us up.”
“I’m not cold.”
“I’d rather have tea.”
“It’ll have to be without lemon. I’ll just be a minute. Meanwhile you can start looking through the magazines.” I pointed to the bottom drawer of the metal cabinet in the alcove where I usually worked on revisions. “You can see that I haven’t touched or manipulated a thing.”
As she gazed around the room, I felt cheap and dirty—last week’s shirts on the couch, carbon paper on the faded rug, dust in every corner and cranny. I had lied about the contents of the refrigerator. There wasn’t enough food for a decent breakfast; I counted three eggs and four slices of dry bread.
Upon my return with a cup of tea, Sonya absently reached for it, nodded thanks, and continued reading. Imagining love, I took a hot shower and scrubbed myself clean. When I returned to the living room, Sonya told me what she thought of my fiction, calling it damned, twisted, and aborted. The product of a diseased mind, this kind of scum belonged in the gutter, along with other sensibilities warped by preconceived laws and fixed theoretical frameworks. Of course, I made one or two comments, but otherwise I chose not to dispute her taste.
“Did you find anything explicitly sexual?” I asked.
She put down the pile of magazines and for the first time that night looked calm. “You told me the truth. 1 hardly found a recognizable situation, and no real people. Everything just drifts. Lots of obscure symbols and mangled time zones. I suppose you know what you’re trying to do but no one else does.”
Her reading was an act of butchery, I thought, but as her fears slowly vanished I became aroused and kept silent. Next came the seduction, if I can call it that. Since there was only one bed in the apartment, it was just a question of time before both disrobed and went to sleep.
It seemed like hours passed. She drank her tea so slowly, then asked for another cup, smoked a half-dozen cigarettes, insisted on washing all the dirty dishes and cleaning up the sink in the bathroom. Then she brushed her hair, her teeth, removed her make-up in the dark, and finally crept into her side of the bed, wearing one of my shirts. Then silence, black everywhere, and after a few moments I could hear her heavy breathing.
Her body felt like ice though her skin was touching mine.
“Are you up?”
“Do you want to?”
Can’t is can’t. Afraid of another argument, I tried to fall asleep, but the bed felt like a fortress, the crumpled sheets spilling over the sides and the one cushion too small for both our heads.
My thighs touched hers and she didn’t squirm off to the edge of the bed. Another inch and my tongue would be licking her neck, my mouth choking on her breasts.
“Sonya?” I whispered again.
“You said you wouldn’t bother me.”
“I’m not. I just want to know what it is.”
“We just met.”
“But you’re in my bed.”
“A bed is not a lay!”
Her words tore into me and I reacted like an attacked creature: a sharp twist of the head, lips into scissors, teeth into claws. When I was younger, I often went to lectures or poetry readings with the dim hope of picking somebody up, and when that failed, I settled for a few words with any woman in black stockings and white starving breasts under her turtleneck sweater. Lying in my bed at night, after climbing four flights of stairs to the two rooms I rented on the top floor, the woman’s distraught face provided me with a body to make love to, my hand sculpting a ravishing two minutes. But I refused to dig up old fantasies with Sonya in my bed.
“I’m not a very happy person,” I heard Sonya say.
“Should I call you in a couple of weeks?”
“Is it the few feels now and then?”
“I haven’t touched you all night.”
“So what.” She leapt out of bed, tightening her shirt. “What the hell am I doing here anyhow? I must be crazy. You’re up to something vicious. Oh, sure, you say you won’t write about me, but how do I know you’re not a madman who stalks the subway trains at night, pressing your filthy thighs against unescorted women?”
“I’m a novelist, not a deviate.”
“That’s what the last four said.”
“Well, you read my stuff.”
“College crap, undergraduate exercises. Whether you realize it or not, you write bad parodies. If I were you, I’d get my hack license and make an honest wage.”
I was exhausted but I’d heard enough of her judgments.
“If you shut up for a second and listen, maybe you’ll understand what I’m trying to do.”
“Don’t take all night.”
“First of all understand that I have no patience with details that confuse me. I get tired very easily from the endless descriptions of rooms, the biographies of lazy characters, the lies, the ins and outs of deceitful representations, the sick minds pursuing meaning, justice, and love while lamenting exile and anguish amidst a brew that wallows uninterrupted between the he saids, she saids, they saids, stating, arguing, obliging, replying as the days outside turn red, green, hot, wet, and cold, which leads the narrator to shift his point of view to the inevitable wretched umbrella and moth-eaten crimson scarf that protects the solitary figure against a nasty winter in the East End of London; and finally the dull comparisons between the Metro, the Underground, and our own BMT.”
“That sounds far-fetched and exaggerated.”
“It is exaggerated. And that’s how they view reality. But the characters I write about are different. They’re real, they suffer. They reconstruct their miserable lives until they have nothing left but a wretched parody of their own existence that condemns them to witness their own deaths. They are actors who mourn the demise of acting. They can’t ever die of natural causes, commit suicide, or just vanish off the face of the earth. They must continually create their own hell. It’s not enough in my fiction for a character to suffer.”
I paused, reaching for a cigarette. “Their lives are empty, they feel it like a claw hanging around their necks, so that they are forced to seek any kind of nourishment. But the search for sustenance turns into an ironic quest that denies their earlier trials completely. They can’t possibly win, they can’t lose. They can only parody, burlesque. They aren’t even allowed to moralize their hungers, and they can’t invent a religion or a myth around the pain. They can only destroy everything mythic with it: a myth to kill myths, a hunger to hunger out hungers. To deny it, to mock it, a state of mind only balanced by the struggle between substance and air, facts and fictions. On the one hand, hunger is a normal state of affairs, people die, love disappears, sex vanishes, humans no longer function; on the other hand, there are those who cannot deal with hunger normally, that is, complain, kill themselves, die off, but must find unique ways to deny their hunger. But they cannot deny it by calling it something else—the wrath of God, for example—but they deny it by turning it inside out on its head. They invent a system, a private world, which responds to the hunger insanely. Only the mad are not mad.” “Enough talk, let’s screw.”
Shortly after eight, I was roused from sleep by a neighbor’s early raucous music. But once up, I decided on a hearty break-fast and went down to get cheeses, creamed herring, green vegetables, bread and rolls, and even freshly ground coffee. Back in the apartment, I scrubbed the kitchen table clean and arranged two settings. I felt good sipping my second cup of coffee while leafing through the Times, my eyes settling only on the innocuous stories, a curious lost-and-found item, an upstate auction, a loving description of a new seafood house near the waterfront.
Sonya entered the kitchen, coat in hand, and demanded coffee.
“Sugar or milk?” I said quietly.
“Both. And make it quick.”
Again I was shocked by her mood, but said nothing. Her eyes were ice and her hands fidgeted with the silverware.
“You owe me a hundred dollars,” she said, putting down the cup of coffee. “I expect fifty now and fifty when the story is published. If it’s a novel, my fee goes up to five hundred, and depending on sales, various subsidiaries, movie rights, foreign translations, and news syndications, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ll end up owing me five thousand for the night. I have good friends in publishing so don’t think you can hide anything from me.”
“What night, what money, what rights?”
“You think I can’t see through your pretenses. Your stories I understand perfectly. Absolutely vapid, two-finger exercises for the piano. But after today you’ll have some blood to write about. You think I just pop into writers’ apartments for the fun of it? My God! Do you know who I am? I’m Ramona in Herzog and Helen in The Assistant. I gave them human flesh to sink their teeth into. And I’ve also been the major character in many short stories, both here and Europe, and two English novels which never made it across the Atlantic. And all of them paid for it. I don’t come into an impotent writer’s life for nothing. Pay up!”
“I don’t believe you,” I said. “You’re just not in the mood for a good breakfast. Maybe some dry bread and sardines would have been enough. Or just bitter black toffee and a pack of Pall Malls to go around.”
She grabbed me by the neck. “I don’t give a damn about your romantic pumpernickel and I hate the smell of cheese. It reminds me of decent writers gone to pot. I just want you to remember everything, every last detail since we met last night. And when it’s a novel, just try to get out of paying me. I work hard for my money and this is my living.”
“I don’t have that kind of money.”
“Give me a check.”
“There’s nothing in my account.”
“What about cash?”
“All I have is ten.”
“I’ll take that now but I expect the rest later.”
Extraordinary, I thought when she had left, a literary prostitute. Of course none of it was true. Sonya must have been reading the biography of a mad 19th-century courtesan whose life was threaded with writers falling in love at her doorstep. I realized then that I was cuddling myself because who doesn’t feel slightly proud after being with a woman who claims what Sonya claimed? But she wasn’t the living incarnation of a character in a dusty century; she had spent the night in my bed driving nails into my world with screams and threats. Now she struck me as a ravenous witch. Suddenly I felt very frightened of her power. Spurred on, she could unleash a hatred vile enough to cause a man’s suicide. I knew that if I ever wrote about her, no matter how well I disguised the circumstances of our meeting, I’d better use an innocent pen name, a simple R.E. Brown or L. Levine. Surely this was much more clever than contracting Riga into Rigman, Rigovsky, or DeRiga. I’d make the order of the syllables in the name so anonymous that Sonya, even if she read the story next month, could never unravel it.